Is our telecoms technology letting us down in a disaster?

In the aftermath of a hurricane, first responders are depending on the affected to communicate their situation. However, is today’s telecoms up to scratch?


Unlike past years when we, at ICT Pulse, might have just reminded our readers about hurricane and disaster preparedness, this year, we cannot help but have them in the forefront with the recent passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which have devastated most of the Eastern Caribbean, and Puerto Rico. In the aftermath, when we are all grappling with the sheer scale of the loss and the rebuilding that must occur, one of the things we have been struck by is how vulnerable today’s telecoms technology has become.

Immediately following both Irma and Maria, when it would have been critical for both local and regional leaders to understand the scale of the destruction experienced, in many islands – Dominica being the most recent ­– there was utter and complete silence. It took a few days for word to trickle out, and accordingly, for neighbouring countries to begin to mobilise the requested assistance.

Mobile/cellular networks not impervious to destruction

It is also interesting to consider the fact that in most Caribbean countries there is extremely high mobile/cellular subscription density – over 100 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants – and coverage is also very good, with virtually all populated areas having connectivity. Additionally, mobile/cellular towers (upon which transmitters and other devices are mounted) are available that can withstand category 5 hurricane winds (157 mph/252 km/h, or higher). As a result, mobile/cellular communication has become an important cornerstone of many countries’ disaster communication plan – to keep their citizens connected and to support the coordination efforts that would be needed.

However, and again in the case of Dominica, which experienced winds of 160mph during Hurricane Maria, the island’s mobile/cellular networks were severely compromised, Residents and communities were cut off during, and most importantly, after the storm, and outside the main population centres, connectivity is unlikely return for several weeks.

The importance of electricity

Outside of the physical destruction of telecoms networks that can occur during a disaster, a frequently overlooked, yet crucial input to the proper working of those networks, is electricity. As noted in a recent article in Barbados’ Nation newspaper, fibre optic networks need electricity to operate, unlike the traditional copper-based networks:

Before LIME switched its fixed line network from copper to fibre, Barbadian consumers were accustomed to talking through storms even when they were sitting in darkness.

Now customers of LIME and Digicel, which has also installed a fibre fixed line and Internet network, are usually without land line services once there is a power outage. The problem was apparent on Monday during the islandwide power outage after the passage of Hurricane Maria.

In a similar vein, mobile/cellular networks also need electricity for their equipment to function, particularly those mounted on towers and scattered all over a country. Although there might be a concerted effort to ensure that each tower has access to a secondary power source, such as a standby generator, or batteries/battery pack, they are costly to acquire and maintain, and so may not be as reliable as we might think.

Is it prudent for us to completely let go of ‘the good old days’?

Finally, whilst we may not think about it, hurricanes are part of the ‘Caribbean experience’. The severity of the storms might fluctuate from year to year, but we always have a hurricane season.

Further, although we now have all kinds of new-fangled telecoms technologies, they are proving to be extremely susceptible during storms, and so may not be available to provide the requisite support when needed. How did we manage in the past?

Although voice telephony and radio would have been present, they might not have been available during or even after a severe storm. Many countries depended on the communications hobbyist, such as Amateur (Ham) Radio and Citizen Band (CB) Radio fraternities, to keep them connected.

Sadly, these fraternities may be dying out in many Caribbean countries, as the structures to license individuals to operate as CB and Ham operators may not be as current as they should be. Further, and for the most part, we are all taken up with the new advances in technology that interest in those mediums might now be at an all-time low.

Final thoughts

With at least two more months to go before the end of the 2017 hurricane season, and the 2018 season to anticipate next year, the impact of such severe storms on local and the regional economy cannot be overstated. Further, and in light of the scale of destruction Hurricanes Irma and Maria meted out in the region within the span of about two weeks, it may be prudent for Caribbean leaders to revisit not only their countries’ disaster plans and protocols, but also their infrastructure plans and policies, with a view to improving the overall resiliency of the infrastructure, and especially with respect to telecoms.


Image credit:  Pixabay (Pexels)